Gerry O’Brien on a looming demographic disaster

It was on the first day of September, with families across the country in ‘back to school’ mode, that I tuned in to Thought for the Day on the radio. The thought was being given by one of the regular contributors, Indarjit Singh, and he immediately grabbed my attention with his opening sentence.

‘I must say that, as a Sikh, I found it a little disconcerting to read a piece in The Times a couple of days ago, in which Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, firmly declared that no-one comes to the Father except through Jesus.’

Clearly Mr Singh didn’t agree. ‘The Sikh scriptures, 400 years old today, take a different view,’ he countered, ‘and maintain that there are no rigid boundaries between faiths, and that God is not in the least interested in our different religious labels, but in how we serve our fellow beings, and how we cherish and value the wonder of Creation.’

Mr Singh’s wishful thoughts would, no doubt, find resonance with many people up and down our street. Perhaps many of them would feel more comfortable if the Christian Church espoused his ‘salvation by works’ approach. The only problem would be that, if we did, we would cease to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus that the Archbishop had sought to assert.

In matters of faith, we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with a world which makes assumptions about life that are radically different from the ones that Jesus made. The Church that goes with the flow of the world’s agenda does so at its peril.

This autumn the bishops will have a long-awaited report to consider from Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. It will offer various ways of handling the possible consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England. Here is an issue that could easily prove to be explosive if not handled with grace and generosity.

The theological issues will doubtless be argued by those who are better theologians than me. It is, however, arguable that the General Synod may not be as well equipped as one might wish to consider those issues.

When I met the Archbishop of Canterbury recently, he expressed concern about the standard of theological education amongst both clergy and laity. There are obviously theological reasons for advocating or opposing the ordination of women. It stands to reason that as a member of Synod one can only draw on the level of theological understanding that one has to address the issue. If that level of understanding is not good, one will obviously draw on whatever other (worldly) resources one has – and the argument is easily reduced to the level of saying that in a world of women teachers, doctors, bankers and even Prime Ministers, why not women priests? Why not indeed?

But there are some practical issues which we might do well to consider in advance of choosing our favourite option from amongst those the Bishop of Rochester’s report will offer.

In 1990 one of the major issues in General Synod elections was the ordination of women. It was also a year in which electoral rolls were completely revised. In the twelve years to 2002, the numbers of women priests grew from zero to roughly one in eight. During those twelve years, electoral rolls fell by 14%. Usual Sunday attendance figures fell by 17%. Christmas communicants fell by 22%. Easter communicants fell by 23%. The number of children attending church or Sunday school fell by 34%. The number of confirmation candidates fell by 45%.

These statistics, which are taken from Church Statistics, published by the Archbishops’ Council, do not make encouraging reading. It would be naïve and unfair to postulate a direct relationship between the number of women priests and the alarming state of the Church of England today. Equally it would hardly be tenable to assert that there is no relationship at all between the two.

According to a recent article in the Sunday Times, ‘Church researchers say that the 45% to 55% male to female split in parish congregations ten years ago has now shifted to a 37% to 63% split in favour of women.’

If that is so, then the number of women worshippers has fallen from 497,000 to 483,000 over the decade – a 3% decline. The number of men in church has fallen from 406,000 to 283,000 – a 30% decline.

It was therefore somewhat ironic that the Sunday Times quoted Christina Rees, described as ‘a supporter of the women’s cause in General Synod’, as saying, ‘The church could do with a strong dose of feminization to help it become more Christ-like.’ One has to ask when enough is enough.

It may be that young Christian men are more inclined to gravitate towards non-conformist churches than are young Christian women. The congregation at Westminster Chapel, for instance, has long been known for the high percentage of men. However, I don’t have any figures to substantiate that hypothesis.

If, however, we take the figures at face value, then we have a time bomb on our hands. Many churches, including my own, teach their young people that they should seek a Christian spouse, rather than a non-Christian one. That seems to be pretty good advice, and in line with New Testament teaching. But if 483,000 women are looking at 283,000 men, so far as the Church of England is concerned, then simple mathematics says that 200,000 of them are heading for a single life or a relationship with a non-Christian.

In 2002, 13,000 men were confirmed and 20,000 women were confirmed, which means that three women are joining the church for every two men. What price Christian families as the norm in our congregations in twenty years time?

The inescapable conclusion is that the Church is losing ground across the board, but is failing particularly badly in its ministry to men. And a church that cannot provide Christian husbands for a rising generation of Christian women is failing the women too.

Ministry to men must become the church’s urgent priority. Is it going to be helpful, in this context, if when a man is invited to come to a church he finds it is run by his mother-in-law, or one of her contemporaries? Sociologically, men are not drawn towards social groupings in which females predominate. Witness the feminization of professions like primary school teachers or secretaries.

Much as we value the work of the Mothers’ Union, we need them to be part of the Church – not the totality. If the Church goes with the flow, which is what Mr Singh seemed to be advocating on the radio, the future is bleak indeed. The pragmatic arguments against women priests, women bishops and further feminization of the church are formidable and we might be wise to think long and hard about them.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.